Expectations, Underestimations, and Realities

college classroom

Here’s a strategy you can tuck in your folder of good ideas: a survey tool for assessing student expectations for the course. The survey’s designers believe that knowing what students expect is helpful. They also cite research documenting that discrepancies between teacher and student expectations often exist. So they compiled a short survey that asks students what technology they’re expecting in the course, what learning activities they’re anticipating, what they’re thinking they’ll be graded on, their expectations regarding faculty-student interactions, and how soon they’re expecting faculty to answer emails, post grades, and/or return assignments and be available to meet with them. Here’s a link to the survey: http://bit.ly/1EXVUAi. Surveys like these are great idea generators. What course expectations do you and your students have?

The idea here is not to find out what students expect and then provide it because that’s what they want. Rather, it’s about finding out if their expectations are correct and how well they align with yours. You may need to elaborate on your expectations or possibly modify course plans based on students’ expectations. It’s all about communication, and an activity like this helps to get everyone on the same page.

Designers tested the survey with 816 responses from undergraduates in 25 STEM courses. They included one other interesting feature. Teaching Professor Blog In each area of expectation, they asked students to rank whether the activity was important in terms of their learning. So if they expected the teacher to use PowerPoint, was it an important component in their learning? Their findings are noteworthy: “As a general trend, students placed greater value on learning tools available to them during their independent study time, such as study guides and textbooks, while they discounted the value of in-class activities (like discussion groups and in-class participation) for learning” (p. 256).

Students in these STEM courses expected that their teachers would be using clickers, but they placed little value on them as a tool for learning. Discussion, participation, and clickers are all widely used, and there’s lots of research documenting their value as well. So what’s the problem here? The teachers weren’t using the strategies effectively? Students aren’t always aware of what does and doesn’t help them learn? Teachers and students need to discuss learning and what supports it more often?

And while we’re on the topic of expectations, I wanted to gently remind us not to underestimate our students. We need to be realistic about who we’re teaching. Most of them aren’t the kind of good students we once were (well, some of us were). Many students come to us with multiple learning needs and attitudes that make them challenging to teach. It’s easy to lose faith in them, to become frustrated, and to always be critical, especially in conversations with colleagues who are all too ready to agree and offer examples of their own.

We do hold students to high standards, but when we think about the students in our courses right now, who and how many do we expect to reach those standards? I loved a recent post in the Guide on the Side blog. My colleague Lolita Paff shared the first assignment she gave in two sections of microeconomics. “Typical homework assignments ask students to ANSWER questions. This assignment is different. I’d like you to ask questions. What are you curious about? What problems or issues are important to you? What topics matter to you? What questions do you wish you could answer?” She writes that she was “blown away” by the questions students shared. Her post includes a long list of questions that don’t look to me like the kind of queries I’d be expecting from beginning students in a required econ course. She concludes, “It’s a little scary. I don’t have all the answers. But perhaps that’s the point. This term students are going to partner in learning with me, not just from me.”

Sometimes having great expectations for students pays off big time.

Reference (this is an open-access journal): Schmitt, K. R. B., et al. (2013). A survey tool for assessing student expectations early in a semester. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 14(2), 255–257. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v14i2.581

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